Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Culture, Gender Roles and Questions

My two oldest children have reached an age where they are questioning more than how a house is made or why a rose is pink.Those questions that used to seem embarrassing now seem so easy! Even the "why does that man have funny eyes mama?" is simply excused based on the age of the questioner. When I used to die a thousand deaths, now I just remove the inquisitor to a quiet place and give a little explanation. The older ones though, don't stop at questioning, they are also into judging and even criticizing, wince.

Even though in our family we have traditional roles; my husband works outside the home and I keep house and am responsible for most of the children's daily life, he still lends a big hand when he is home. He helps out with what needs doing on a given day; shopping, cooking or cleaning. I love this and it works for us. If he were in charge, sure, the sheets would walk by themselves, the dust would form into living creatures and no one would ever leave the house, but he would make lovely meals from fresh ingredients and keep everything picked up and the floors clean. If I went to work I would be a psychological wreck, always worried about the children, cutting up client's veal for them at business lunches, and reminding co-workers to mind their manners and take out their trash. I'm afraid nothing would ever get done at home either, because I would be very strongly inclined to come home and read to the children, bake cookies and knit.

In my husband's family, his parents both worked full-time when he was growing up. Like most families of that generation, his mother also did the shopping, cooking, cleaning and child-raising. His father worked on the house they built, putting in the entire second floor by himself, decorating and making curtains for all the windows. He was also responsible for the accounting for their business and worked on that in the evenings. Along the way, his mother managed to have the children recite their lessons to her each evening and his father learned to play flight simulator games on the computer.

Today, they are retired. From the outside, it looks and sounds like my mother-in-law does all of the shopping, cleaning, cooking and gardening and that my father-in-law's only self-proclaimed activity is building model airplanes. He told the children,"I am retired, I have a goal, it is to do NOTHING I don't want to do!" Pierre's grandmother, who helps with the cooking, cleaning and endless ironing, has even called the airplane making "his work." This drives my children nuts. Lily can be particularly challenging when she barrages either her grandfather or us with questions on this topic; "why don't you do dishes, Papy? What do you do? When you worked, didn't Mamie work in the same place the same hours as you? Did you help out with the cooking and cleaning then? Why is the whole yard her job?" (He does mow the lawn on occasion.)

This is so hard for feminist, yet happy-to-be-home me. Inside, I am shouting; "woo-hoo, you go girl, great questions!" Outside, I have to temper my own prejudices with respect both for our elders and for diversity. It's not because I have strong beliefs on a topic that I hold the key to the unique truth on it. (Even if I am sure that I am right, and really, the world would be a better place if everyone just did things my way.) Being polite and pleasant company also has its merits, and while it is good to question authority (go kids!), it is important to treat others, especially ones grandparents, with respect and reverence. I think it's great, too, though, to see that there is more than one way of doing things and that different situations work for different people. Isn't that the whole point of travel, in the end?


  1. Great for the children to ask questions and have them answered sensibly by you.I think, individual households work out there own gender roles and what works best for them. we can all learn thou from new experiences like what you are doing, in your traveling. cheers Marie

  2. Thank you for your vote of confidence, Marie. It took me a long time to write that entry, I wanted to treat the topic with objectivity and diplomacy. It infringes on my own comfort zone a bit too much!

    Have a lovely day!


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